Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, believes the “scale and ambition” of Labour’s childcare reforms will compare with Aneurin Bevan’s creation of the National Health Service.
In a bid to resolve one of the biggest problems facing families, and therefore the economy, the rising Labour star has a plan, as yet not fully costed: to guarantee childcare for all parents of children aged nine months to 11 years.
Speaking in her office overlooking Westminster Bridge, Phillipson, 39, who has an 11-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son, said existing childcare provision was “fragmented and complicated”.
“[There are] lots of different pots of money in a system that just doesn’t work,” she said.
Currently, all three to four-year-olds can have 15 hours a week of free childcare, with some children eligible for 30 hours if their parents qualify.
As any parent with a job know, this is not enough.
Phillipson said she was always hearing of parents — “mothers in particular” — who “give up jobs they love, cut back on their hours because childcare isn’t available and it’s not affordable”.
She said: “When I knock on doors in Watford or Thurrock or Sedgefield, it comes up as a big issue with parents.”Britons pay the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world. The average cost of sending a child under two to nursery full-time is £263 a week, according to the National Childbirth Trust.
Phillipson, who was raised by her mother, a single parent, in a council house in Washington, Tyne and Wear, knows the benefits of good childcare.
“My mum gave up work when I came along because there was no childcare,” she said. “At the point I was born, she was working in a residential home for children. She left school at 15 and did lots of different jobs. That was in 1983, and yet here we are in 2023 and that’s the situation still facing so many women. It has to change.”
She wants other mothers and fathers not to have the same experience.“
Despite the fact we spend an awful lot of money as a country on childcare, it is fragmented,” she said. “Providers are closing and childcare is becoming less and less accessible, which is why I believe we need to completely rethink how we deliver childcare. [We need to] move towards a modern system that runs from the end of parental leave right through to the end of primary school.”
She added that she wants to “make a change in education . . . like the change that we saw post-1945 with the creation of the NHS. That’s the scale and ambition that we have.”
Phillipson’s inspiration? A trip last year to Estonia, where a place at nursery is guaranteed by law and childcare provision does not end until a pupil’s primary education does.
It is offered to all families at a cost of €70 (£62) a month at most — and even less for disadvantaged families. Phillipson said the support for Estonian parents was “seamless” from the moment they chose to go back to work. Parents are also given flexibility, with additional support that lets them work the jobs and hours they choose. She will visit Australia next month to learn from the experiences of Anthony Albanese, the Labor prime minister, whose pledge to make childcare cheaper helped him to an election victory in May that ended nine years of Liberal-National rule.
The Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, who was elected in 2010, Phillipson believes that childcare will be a fault line at the next general election, especially after Rishi Sunak appeared to row back from plans by his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to overhaul the system to save families money.
Sunak’s decision has put him at odds with some of his Conservative backbenchers, who believe reforming childcare will be a winner at the ballot box.
Phillipson, who is married, says: “There is a lot of frustration from Conservatives . . . because they have the same conversations that I have with voters in Conservative-held seats. When childcare costs more to parents than their rent or their mortgage, you’ve got a real problem.
“Continued inaction from the Conservatives, I think, puts lots of seats within the reach of the Labour Party.”
The cost of childcare is not the only headache that comes with her patch. On top of the many months lost to the coronavirus, Phillipson, who went to a Roman Catholic comprehensive school and then studied modern history at the University of Oxford, is concerned about the effect on students’ education of the industrial action being taken by university lecturers. Teachers are also balloting for strike action.
Last week, the University and College Union announced a further 18 days of industrial action in February and March by more than 70,000 staff at 150 universities in a long-running dispute over pay, conditions and pensions.
She said: “I don’t want strikes to go ahead. And there’s no reason that strikes should happen . . . because if the government sit down and negotiate properly then there is no reason for the strikes to happen. But at the moment they’re still refusing to have meaningful discussions around pay.”
Phillipson, who went to Oxford after getting A-levels in history, French, Spanish and English literature, said the university was an amazing place to study but there “weren’t many people from the northeast [of England] there, and there weren’t many people from backgrounds like mine.“
It was a culture shock. There were people who had second homes in France, went on skiing holidays, had gap years . . . I was more interested in going to music gigs than going to posh balls. It was a very different world.”
Phillipson described the anti-strike legislation, which will receive its second reading tomorrow and will introduce minimum service levels for certain sectors, as “completely unworkable”.
Labour has already said it will vote against the bill and repeal the ensuing act if the party gets into power.
Phillipson called the legislation a “complete distraction” and said the only way to resolve a dispute was to “get around the table and sort it out”.
“What the public want is for disputes to come to an end, and the way to resolve that is through negotiation,” she said. “Pointless legislation that doesn’t work in other countries, and won’t work here, is not the way forward.”
This article originally appeared in The Times